Published on January 28, 2015
‘I want to work in South America’ was probably right up there on the long list of things your parents hoped you’d never say, above ‘I’m majoring in poetry’ and ‘Guess who has a brand new tattoo?’. But today’s up and coming workforce (yes, that’s you guys) has a rather different Latin America to read about, travel to, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, work in. Pablo Escobar and offices resembling ghost towns are a thing of the past. Today’s South America has a thriving entrepreneurial scene, business-friendly legislations and an increase in available capital, all of which have made this underrated continent one of the best new places in which to do business. Besides, you know you’re doing something right when China invests $11.4 billion in you.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Colombia, and Medellin in particular. The city was plagued by extreme economic disparity and crime until about 20 years ago. Urban planners and government initiatives have since been instrumental in transforming the city into a tourist hotspot. And exactly how did the Paisas, (residents of the Antioquia region of which Medellin is the capital), achieve that?
Perhaps the most interesting turnaround story of them all has been Medellin, Colombia (also known as the City of Eternal Springs). With an average annual temperature of 23 degrees Celsius, you can dine “al fresco”, or outside, all year round. It might not be as famous as Baranquilla, the Colombian city that the world has to thank for producing Shakira, but Medellin certainly has come into its own in recent years. The city likes to celebrate its unique history and culture, boasting about everything from quirks like the Largest Poetry Festival in the world and the world’s Largest Outdoor Horse Parade, to Eje Cafetero, a region where you can breathe in the sweet, sweet smell of the world’s finest coffee beans. South Korea is the latest in a growing number of countries investing in Colombian coffee production; Canada, Japan, some countries from the European Union and the United States being among them. The US also imports Colombian roses and other native flowers, along with petroleum based products as part of a free trade agreement signed in 2011.
It would seem as though the rest of the world is finally catching up and realising the potential of a growing economy like Colombia, which overtook Peru in 2014 to become Latin America’s fastest growing economy.
A number of factors have been key in Colombia’s success, including a largely untapped wealth of natural resources, and a high rate of entrepreneurship and startups. This is good news for young graduates from all over the world, who are sometimes unfairly stuck in saturated markets that are bursting with qualified professionals. Emerging markets like Colombia provide an amazing opportunity to gain first hand experience in South America, which, apart from making a good story for an interview, also allows students to take on more responsibilities than most other interns. They also discover, first-hand, what it takes to develop sectors like politics, finance, business, and even tourism and events. So if helping create wacky gadgets or walking into government offices everyday or even publicizing some of the biggest events in Latin America sounds like your cup of tea (or in this case, coffee), check out our aptly named Emerging Markets Program here.
The history behind Colombia’s success started with the construction of the now famous Medellin metro cable car system in 1991, which has been successful for two key reasons. For one, it created much needed jobs and was a huge revenue generator. Secondly, the metro system was able to eliminate boundaries between the city’s different neighborhoods, or “barrios”, allowing development at a grassroots level and giving people the opportunity to connect with one another. With a sound infrastructural base, landmarks like Bosques de Luz (forest of light) in Cisneros Square benefited from funding and developed into a square filled with 300 light masts thanks to the government’s architecture initiatives. Between 2005 and 2008, library parks were built in formerly destitute areas of Medellin, allowing youth to turn to culture instead of crime. That boom in business continues to this day. In fact, Medellin has plans to build more skyscrapers than are currently being constructed in New York!
Government’s Attitude Toward Entrepreneurship & Business
The Colombian government has also changed its fundamental approach to entrepreneurship, moving away from protective industrial policies and focusing on supporting small and medium sized enterprises. The term política de desarrollo empresarial (entrepreneurship development policy) was coined in the 1990s, representing the government’s approach to “try fast, learn fast, fail cheap”, according to former director of entrepreneurship and innovation in the ministry of commerce, industry and tourism, Sergio Zuluaga. In a country where even brands like Starbucks are relatively new, the economic environment is ripe for development, particularly foreign investment and capital. In fact, certain sectors like IT and Engineering have seen triple digit growth in Colombia for the past three years.
Medellin also did some economic tinkering of its own, implementing a parliamentary budgeting system that allows Paisas to define their own priorities and goals to receive corresponding amounts of public funds. The Wall Street Journal named Medellin the most innovative city in 2012, which comes as no surprise considering that the average productivity increased by as much as 10% on average.
Entrepreneurship and business continues to be strengthened, with legislations improving overall development as recently as the last decade. A legal framework was passed in 2006 that encouraged entrepreneurship in all sectors through a regional and national network for development, and in 2009, saw the creation of a national initiative for science, technology and innovation from which entrepreneurs and startups hugely benefited. Analysts from the World Economic Forum cite a high level of start-ups combined with an export based economy as some of the reasons that Colombia has managed to thrive during times of global financial uncertainty.
Benefits of a Colombian Experience
More and more students, especially from the US, find that coming to Latin America for even a short time is a better test of their Spanish than any high school test they’ve ever taken, and with Colombian Spanish being renowned for its clarity, you’ll certainly get a good run for your money. There are other obvious advantages for honing your Spanish skills and knowledge of Latin American cultures. A Nielsen Report on consumer markets points out that Hispanic consumers in the US and elsewhere follow different buying patterns compared to other ethnic groups, and the influence of Latin American pop culture and music in the States has been projected to grow at exponential rates.
In short, if you’re looking for a good time to get some hands on experience in Colombia, it’s now. Get there before everyone else does.
Photo 3. The Intern Group